Thomas Keller, the youngest of five boys, was born on October 14, 1955, at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California, to Edward Keller, a Marine Corps officer and his wife, Betty. After his parents divorced, Mrs. Keller moved east with her sons, eventually settling in Palm Beach, Florida. She supported the family by managing restaurants in the affluent town of Palm Beach and its considerably less glamorous neighbor, West Palm Beach.
Thomas, a genial but somewhat reckless teenager, attended Lake Worth High School. He played basketball and baseball, but was not an ambitious student, and somewhat engaged himself in less wholesome pursuits common among teenagers of the early 1970s. His mother ended these pursuits when she put him to work washing dishes at the Palm Beach Yacht Club in West Palm Beach, where she was the general manager. This was his first restaurant job: dishwasher. Dishwashing is how many American chefs begin.
One afternoon Betty Keller nodded toward the Yacht Club’s Chef and said to her nineteen-year-old son, “Watch him. Watch what he does.” Mrs. Keller sensed that her club chef was about to quit; Thomas was out of high school and ready for a real job. Thomas Keller had given little thought to what he would do with his life, never dreaming he would become a cook, let alone chef.
“I called up my friend Przempko (pronounced Shempko),” Thomas Keller said of the day the Yacht Club chef gave notice. “He was out of work, and I asked him if he wanted a job and he said, ‘Yeah’. So, we went out and partied that night. We both had a job. We were going to become chefs.”
The Yacht Club served uncomplicated lunches and, on weekends, dinner. “We did everything,” Keller said. “We cleaned the whole restaurant. That was the first thing – bathrooms, dining room-- the whole thing. Then we’d get ready for lunch. Hamburgers, French fries, sandwiches, eggs Benedict.” When Keller didn’t know how to cook something, he’d call his older brother Joseph, who was then a cook at La Petite Marmite, a fashionable, classic restaurant in Palm Beach. Joseph would walk him through making a sauce, cooking a whole prime rib, and broiling a lobster tail. Keller smiled at the memory and said “I remember the first time I made a hollandaise. I was so excited. I ran out and told Captain John. Captain John was the dock manager. I was twenty years old. I had never made a hollandaise before.”
That year Mrs. Keller gave Thomas his first cookbook, Mary and Vincent Price’s A Treasury of Great Recipes, inscribing it “To my wonderful son/God bless you always.”
Thomas was inspired. He would make his first fancy cookbook dish, Tagliatelle Verde con Proscuitto, one of Vincent Price’s favorite dishes from Harry’s Bar. “I couldn’t find any spinach pasta,” Keller recalls, “This was 1975. No one had spinach pasta. So, you know what I thought I’d do? I’d dye it green.” The final dish, with neon green fettuccine, was not as appetizing as he hoped it would be. The prosciutto, (which he over-cooked), released all of its salt, rendering the dish inedible. A kind Club member, a regular and a fan of young Keller’s, tried to eat it, really did try, but had to tell Thomas he just couldn’t eat it. “That was my first venture into trying to create something for myself,” he said, “being inspired by a recipe and trying to create it.”
Thomas Keller remained chef of the Yacht Club for two years. “Making hamburgers,” he said, “and trying to make things nice and neat, and trying to keep things as they should be, making eggs Benedict every day, making the hollandaise, which was really the high point of every morning, perfecting the hollandaise.”
Member Patricia Dehon remembers "Tommy" traveling to France to intern in fine French restaurants under the tutelage of celebrated chefs; he thrived throughout the regimented training. Keller visited Florida occasionally and would apply his skills at the club, when he picked up some kitchen shifts for his mother.
According to Mrs. Dehon, “the food was so superb no one could believe it!” Ultimately, Keller was eager to try his hand as an entrepreneur and left for New York to begin his career. His meteoric success is now legendary and many now consider him to be the "Best Chef in America.”
Thomas Keller mastered the standard for the renowned food and service at the Palm Beach Yacht Club and Chef Robert Lalli assumes the mantle of culinary integrity and rich traditions established.